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Sun 5 Jun 2005 04:00 AM

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Life after death

Voters in Beirut have finally gone to the polls, as nationwide elections begin across Lebanon. But as Massoud A. Derhally reports from the city, the turnout of just 28% means the democratic process is uncertain.

Life after death|~|LEBANESE-FLAG-200.jpg|~||~|From the moment you come out of Beirut’s airport there is a different feel to the atmosphere in Lebanon three months after the assassination of former premier Rafik Hariri.

Tourists are arriving from the US, Japan, the Gulf and elsewhere. Hotel occupancy rates have increased to 70%, with some even full.

Downtown Beirut is again buzzing with people during the day and night. Shops are open until the early morning hours. Normality seems to have been restored and it all very much seems to be symbiotic of the resilient Lebanese people, who have an unquenchable desire to move beyond the trauma of a 15-year civil war, the recent killing of Hariri and a yearning to live and enjoy life — no matter what comes in their way.

The tension that electrified the country in the aftermath of the assassination of Hariri has subsided. More evident is the waning of the enthusiasm that came to the fore when thousands of Lebanese took to the streets to demand Syria leave their country, for democracy to take root, to have national unity among the 18 communities of various confessions and for violence to be shunned.

Martyrs’ Square, where the opposition rallies were held and images of Lebanese protestors were constantly being beamed out to the world after the killing of Hariri, and where a village of tents was erected by the youth of what came to be known as the “Cedar Revolution”, is now all but empty.

Visiting the site is almost anticlimactic for anyone who took part in those demonstrations or witnessed them. To many Lebanese, especially the ones that took to the streets and defied the might of Syria’s 14,000 soldiers and the tentacles of its intelligence services, the momentum for change seems to have waned; their enthusiasm has been replaced by cynicism and apathy.

This was especially evident as the Lebanese went to the polls on May 29. Much had happened since Hariri’s death and the landmark demonstration of March 14 that brought together over 1 million Lebanese in the heart of Beirut.

Pro-Syrian prime minister Omar Karami had resigned and had been replaced by another pro-Syrian premier who was viewed as being more of a moderate and amiable choice to the wider population. From the moment Mikati declared the elections would start on May 29 the political landscape in the county began to change.

As the Syrians withdrew, the euphoria that gripped the country slowly emaciated. Lebanon’s intricate history of confessionalism once again became a dominant force that essentially shaped the context in which the upcoming elections would take place.

Lebanon is a complicated, multi-layered country with various faiths, sects and ethnicities. But by the same token it is this rich melting pot that makes the country so fragile. Therefore, it was only natural that all the various political figures that make up the fabric of Lebanon began to jostle in the run up to the parliamentary elections — and that the political posturing set in and alliances began to take form.

If there is a case in point here, it is how General Michel Aoun, the staunch anti-Syrian commander who fought against the Syrians and Palestinians in Lebanon, was initially welcomed with open arms by the Lebanese opposition who visited him in Paris, where he was in exile for the past 15 years. Now it seems he has fallen from grace.

Aoun’s inability to forge electoral alliances with the opposition, largely due to a disagreement on seat allocation in Mount Lebanon with Druze MP Walid Jumblatt, led the 70-year-old former army general to ironically enter into alliances with pro-Syrian contenders.

The army general teamed up with Talal Arslan, a principal rival of Jumblatt and also with Michel Murr, who has had a monopoly over the portfolio of the Interior Ministry.

Even Saad Hariri, the son of the former premier, whose pictures are plastered all over the walls of Beirut along with his father, exhibited a shrewd strategy as he set out to make his own alliances.

The 35-year-old businessman, who took over the mantle of his father but has little political experience, aligned himself with Jumblatt and various other personalities to consolidate his constituency. He raised eyebrows, for example, when he brought on right-wing Christian Maronite Solange Gemayel, the widow of former Lebanese president Bashir Gemayel.

Hariri claimed a clean sweep of 19 seats in the first round of the four-part elections that started on May 29 and end on June 19. The large success of his list has been attributed to sympathy voting but also because most of his political rivals decided not to contest the available seats.

Still, there are visible weaknesses that highlight the prickly terrain that lies before the young Hariri. Supporters of Aoun, who heads the Free Patriotic Movement that called for a boycott of the elections, after their leader fell out with Hariri and his Muslim allies in the opposition. They took to the streets dressed in orange shirts and passed out “Do not vote” flyers and others labelling the elections as “appointments”.

The campaign, along with dissatisfaction with the electoral law, which was implemented under Syrian influence in 2000 and considered unfair by many voters, resulted in a low voter turnout (28%) with the Christians shunning the Beirut elections amid a wider show of support from the Sunni Muslim community.

Michael Young, a Lebanese political commentator, says its true “the majority of Beirutis and Sunni Muslims are represented” in the elections but he adds: “On the Christian side it is a different ball game — they think [they] are getting screwed.”

“Those who boycott the elections are disloyal and it is sad to see some stabbing Beirut in the back,” says Gibran Tueini, editor-in-chief of the An Nahar newspaper and a Greek Orthodox candidate on Hariri’s list.

Not surprisingly there were also unsubstantiated reports of vote buying. But the European Union Election Observation Mission, made up of 100 experts, sent to monitor the elections appears to be largely satisfied with the way things are running.

“We have visited this morning many polling stations and everything seems normal at the moment,” Jose Ignacio Salafranca, the chief observer of the EU mission told Arabian Business, while visiting the polling station at Lycee Abdel Kader in Batrakiyeh on May 29.

When asked if the elections were being conducted without the influence of outside forces, Salafranca said: “We are acting under the provisions of the present legal framework but I think citizens are coming free … after the final process of elections we are going to produce a complete report which presents our point of view.”

To the detractors of the elections, the cynical outsider, and indeed to many disenchanted Lebanese today, the electoral race, dubbed the first event of its kind that is free of outside interference, illuminates the limitations of the Lebanese political system.

Seats in the National Assembly are divided confessionally with each religious community having an allotted number of seats in the National Assembly (see table), strengthening the argument that thought the present system represents the various communities of Lebanon it has in actual fact led to gerrymandering.

Though March 14 showed the Lebanese had an insatiable appetite to carve out their own future it is visibly apparent that many are now dismayed by the fact that while the Syrians may be out, the political system is very much rife with the old, archaic, political dinosaurs and more importantly that confessionalism is more of a dividing force now than before.

This less than ideal system opens the door to valid criticism that there is a clique of personalities, or a political elite that runs the country, making it all the harder for democracy to take root.

Yvonne, a 68-year-old bookshop owner, is stinging in her criticism. “What elections?” she says, adding, “These people don’t represent anyone … the people running don’t care about the country, all they care about is the seat of power, the chair.”

There is an ever more acute disenfranchisement among the youth of Lebanon that were the main protagonists of the Cedar Revolution, but who feel much of their effort to bring about change and a system free of the political bickering and cajoling has been in vain.

Yamen, a photographer who documented the demonstrations that gripped Beirut in much of February and March says: “My hair rose when I saw footage of Martyrs’ Square … it was real then, but largely superficial now because you feel everything has gone with the wind. Most people are following a person rather than an idea.”

Mohamed, a 24-year-old waiter in the fashionable Gemaizeh, which lies 150 metres away from Martyrs’ Square, now renamed Freedom Square, says: “Change will not come from voting. It’s the same faces as before, the same people in power and in parliament.

“I am with no-one,” he adds. “At this point I would encourage Buddhists to lead Lebanon.”

An even harsher and perhaps sobering indictment comes from Maida, a 31-year-old staunch loyalist of Michel Aoun.

“Aoun is the only one that is saying something ... different. He is for reform and secularism,” an adamant Maida says of the general. “He is patriotic, he speaks with foresight. What have the Hariris done in the past 15 years? Yes, Rafik Hariri educated many Lebanese, but they are from his own community or those who vote for him,” she adds.

Maida who took part in the March 14 demonstrations was also present when Aoun returned to Lebanon. She was actually invited to present Aoun at the podium at Beirut’s airport and says much of what has happened with regard to the elections has been a sham.

“All the people stood with the Hariris and the opposition for the sake of national unity and then two weeks before the elections they engaged in horse-trading,” says an outraged Maida.

Her voice changing as it went up and down in pitches, Maida says softly: “Its more about who is getting what piece of the pie.”

When asked why Aoun has aligned himself with pro-Syrian personalities he once fought against, Maida says: “Aoun stayed with the opposition … he came back and Talal Arslan [the main Druze rival of Walid Jumblatt] told him I agree with your agenda to fight corruption. The opposition is forming alliances left and right so how can they come and take him to task because of [who] he’s teaming up with?”

Though she hates to admit that change comes about in little, and at times, imperfect steps, Maida does concede that the political terrain of the country is bound to change.

“The real elections start in five years when you see new faces because the country will begin to get cleaner,” she says. “You can’t enter a house before cleaning it. Yes the Syrians left, but you need to clean the house.”

The disillusionment with the electoral race is understandable, as is the frustration with what some term as electoral interest duality that has marred the overall process. But the birth and rebirth of a nation is never an easy process. Though the changing dynamics on the ground may bring about promise they are also likely to disappoint, as the Lebanese have learned first hand — the old sectarian system still dominates and defines their country.

There has been “no convincing leadership, no radically new faces”, says Chibli Mallat, a political analyst and lawyer. Though he doesn’t agree with the cynics, in that the elections were pointless, Mallat says he understands any grievances they may have.

When asked how he explains the perceptions of disenchantment with his close friend, Jumblatt, Mallat speaks frankly.

“Walid lost a lot by a combination of a lack of ambition and a lack of explanation. A lack of ambition because he should have turned the situation into a democratic revolution, and a lack of explanation because he didn’t explain to the people … there are people who have been thrilled by Walid who are considering voting against him,” says Mallat.

“The elections were overcome by a feeling that after March 14, the country was going to change. I think this is unrealistic. You have a political class protecting their interests,” explains Michael Young, the Lebanese political commentator.

Once the elections are concluded on June 19, the challenges then for the opposition will largely revolve around how to get rid of Nabih Berri, the speaker of Lebanon’s parliament, who has distinguished himself as both one of the most reviled of Lebanon’s militia elites and the most loyal of Syria’s Lebanese allies. There is also the prickly issue of removing Lebanese president Emile Lahoud.

The opposition will have to oust Berri and Lahoud, says Chibli Mallat a political analyst and lawyer, “otherwise they won’t get much accomplished.”

Mallat and other legal experts believe the new parliament is likely to introduce an amendment that will ultimately dislodge both Berri and Lahoud.

Possible names being touted for the presidency include: Nassib Lahoud, Boutrus Harb and Michel Edde.

For the role of prime minister it is generally accepted that Saad Hariri is not the political maverick his father was and will need time to acquire the necessary acumen before he can vie for the position. Contenders being named for the role of prime minister include Bahij Tabbara and the current interim prime minister Najib Mikati.

But the new parliament and the emerging government will also be besieged by other challenges, such as pressure from the UN Security Council and the investigation into the assassination of Hariri, more pertinently UN Resolution 1559 and the disarming of Hezbollah, as well as tackling the economy, the country’s US$33 billion debt and unemployment problem.

More importantly there is the question of determining the identity of Lebanon as a country now that Syria is out — that may well be the ultimate test. ||**||

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